Will Hermes | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (3,994 words)
Neko Case’s powerhouse voice often seems like it might level buildings. But during a 20-plus-year career, she’s put it to more constructive use, both as singular solo act and poster child for collective creativity. She formed the ultra-meta power-pop band The New Pornographers with kindred singer-songwriters Carl Newman and Dan Bejar in 1997, the same year she released her own debut LP, The Virginian, an eclectic, country-rock-leaning set of originals and deep-catalog covers: Everly Brothers, Loretta Lynn, hard-rock-era Queen. Since then she’s worked alternately with the Pornographers and under her own name, with occasional side projects like The Corn Sisters (with Carolyn Mark) and Case/Lang/Viers (a low-key supergroup with k.d. lang and Laura Viers).
Hell-On, Case’s new solo album, is as gorgeous, imaginative, and potent as any she’s made, and for a lyricist given to imagistic fables and emotional meditations, it responds to the cultural-environmental moment vividly. Songs address nature’s ruthlessness (it’s worth noting Case’s Vermont home was destroyed in a fire when she was out of the country recording songs), along with the vagaries and tyrannies of gender, the endless negotiations of love, and even the attributes of the Almighty. “God is not a contract or a guy,” she sings on the title track, a faintly hallucinatory waltz that tilts into an empowered come-on (“I am not a mess/I’m a wilderness, yes/The undiscovered continent/For you to undress/But you’ll not be my master/You’re barely my guest,” she instructs). Another standout, “Halls of Sarah,” casts a #metoo side-eye at the trope of woman-as-muse (“Our poets do an odious business loving womankind/As lions love Christians”). At the same time, “Sleep All Summer,” a song by ex-bandmate Eric Bachmann, is a heartbreaker about faded love that feels like a forgotten classic.
The recording sessions enlisted a busload of other fellow travelers: Viers and lang, punk/pop/queer/ feminist/fashion icon Beth Ditto, veteran grunge crooner Mark Lanegan, Swedish indie-pop scientist Bjorn Yttling, various Pornographers and other long-time associates, a squadron of whom are on the road with her this year. At a tour stop in Brooklyn in May, bandmates Rachel Flotard and Shelly Short formed a powerhouse frontline with Case at the club Littlefield, delivering new songs like a trio of wisecracking Valkyries.
I spoke to Case on the phone some days later, as she was idling in San Diego before another show. She spoke about the album, the fire that recently destroyed her house, and the 2016 WOMANPRODUCER conference, which she described as “the highlight of my professional career.” This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Will Hermes: You work with a lot of singers on this new album.
Neko Case: I just love singing. I love what human voices do together. And the great thing about the studio, especially with technology right now, you don’t have to be in the same city as the people you’re recording with. You can have a crazy idea like “oh my God, Beth Ditto would be an amazing person to be the part of this song,” and you can call up and go, can you sing on this? And she can say, yeah, I can’t do it right now, but then she can go to the recording studio she likes in her hometown and it totally can happen. So it really makes for a lot of variety, which is really nice. And it’s really cool when the person you think of first ends up being able to do it.
That song, “Winnie,” is a standout on the record; it kind of flips the folk trope of the sailor’s lament. How’d that one come about?
I think it’s because I had read this book [ The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World ] by Adrienne Mayor, this really amazing historian, proving that the Amazons were not mythical but actual people who existed all over Europe, Asia, Africa, India. Women’s history has been kind of buried, and she kind of resurrected it, and it’s a very heroic thing. I took a lot of history in school, and it’s like there are very few women in history, and you can’t help but do the math and know that seems a little bit weird. It just seems like we probably did more than that — we weren’t just passengers or property or breeding stock or vessels or slaves or whatever. That’s not all we did. Our wills are just too strong. There’s no way that that’s all we did. And so I think that book came at the right time for me because I was pretty down and dealing with a lot of things that are very much embedded in law and patriarchy and other things.
Representation matters. We say it all the time, but it really does; everybody deserves to see themselves represented, and everybody deserves to be validated in that way.
Do you get reading time while you’re touring?
A little bit. Not much. I’m pretty desperate for sleeping time right now because it’s the beginning of the album cycle, so we’re still in the throes of translating things on a record to a live performance. Which is fun, but it takes a lot of time. So there’s a lot of sleeping that needs to happen right now. But that book has definitely been number one on my list for awhile.
You share a lot of recommendations for writing and music on your Twitter feed, which is pretty healthy in terms of quantity and quality of information.
Thank you. Twitter can be like a real bummer to read. You’ve got to actively curate what you’re reading. It’s not easy all the time, especially during this regime. But there’s positive stuff out there. People sometimes get on you for retweeting too much. But I don’t care. That’s what the button is for, and I’m going to use it, to get the good stuff out there.
Representation matters. We say it all the time, but it really does; everybody deserves to see themselves represented, and everybody deserves to be validated in that way.
I’m struck by the spirit of collaboration in your work. Your last solo album credited everyone involved as quote unquote “producers,” and on this one you inserted names of the featured singers into the song titles. You’ve always gone out of your way to give credit where credit’s due.
Absolutely. Everybody works really hard, and everybody who played on the record, I asked for a reason. With streaming, you don’t have that thing I had when I was younger, when there were LPs — the information was right there: who played what, who produced it, who did this, who did that, who mastered it, who engineered it. I want these people to be accessible and I want people to know who they are.
That’s how I learned about music — you get tipped off to other artists. I’d see that Simi Stone sings on “Gumball Blue,” say, so I’d check out her other music. It’s another argument for purchasing records in physical form, where you can get all the information.
Right. I love knowing who the engineers are and all those other things. Engineers don’t get enough credit and it’s a really, really, really important thing. The record would not have happened without Chris Schultz or Thom Monahan. So they deserve absolute credit, and I want people to know I’m proud to work with them.
I wanted to ask about “Sleep All Summer,” which is the one song on the album that you did not write.
Eric Bachmann, who I do it with, wrote it. It’s a Crooked Fingers song, which is his band. I remember the first time I ever heard it, I had to pull my car over and cry because it was so beautiful. He played guitar in my band for a long time. I knew he was going to leave, because he has a young son and he wanted to do more of his own solo stuff — which I totally support. And I was like, “Can we record it?” Because we’d play it live, and people would be like, “Oh, my God, what is that song?” I’d tell them, and they’d say, “Is there a version we can get with you guys?” So I talked Eric into doing it, and he was gracious enough to let it happen.
When I heard that song on the record, I thought it was a cover of some ginormous, 1980s power ballad radio hit.
Eric just writes really beautiful songs and is a really great musician. Other people have covered that song too, so it would make sense to think that it was a classic. He’s just fucking excellent.
There are a lot of incredibly powerful women’s voices on this album, but when you go for the dudes, you like dudes with real dude voices, like Mark Lanegan.
There’s actually dudes on the recording like the New Pornographers — I always joke that they’re far better women than I will ever be. [laughs] Those guys they can sing so high and so beautifully. I can’t sing that high. Beautiful falsettos are definitely Carl [Newman]’s wheelhouse. He’s on there, and Joe [Seiders], the New Pornographers drummer, sings on “Gumball Blue” too. So there’s men all over the place.
Carl’s been pushing you into higher registers ever since “Letter To An Occupant” [from The New Pornographers 2000 debut Mass Romantic]
I always write songs that are way too hard for me to sing, but I somehow work into it. And then by the time we play it live, I can do it. It’s like this weird stretching that has to happen. You have to get in shape for it.
Well that’s good — you’re hearing stuff in your head that wouldn’t necessarily come to you naturally.
Yeah. And you know, sometimes I can sing it that high but it doesn’t sound good. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should [laughs]. I don’t have to be the queen of every note.
That’s why collaboration is a good thing. Let me ask you about the new songs. Should listeners read anything into the fact that the first word on this album is God?
I don’t know. I mean, I don’t take the word terribly seriously. I respect it, but I’m much more of a person who believes in nature. I’m a spiritual person. But I’m not frightened by the word.
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You describe this entity in a few different ways in “Hell-On,” but my favorite is “a lusty tire fire.”
Well, I’m not going to say what God is. I don’t know. But for the sake of poetry, I do.
It’s a beautifully poetic description. Bad things happen. Maybe you can see where I’m going with this; there’s fire on the album cover too. I’ve never seen a crown of cigarettes quite like that before.
I’m kind of obsessed with those Hollywood cigarettes that look like they’re burning — they totally look real. So I was like, where can I buy a gross of those? Can I make a whole costume out of them? I wanted to have a huge pile of them, but it would have been too much effort. What do you do with 2000 fake cigarettes when you’re done?
You could hand them out to the audience, or sell them at the merch table. Anyway, you dealt with a fire last year, and I wanted to ask you how that happened.
The fire department told me it was either the crappy electrical in my barn, which is very common in Vermont. Or, there was a hole in the roof and a bale of hay got wet and composted and caught fire — also a very common thing. They couldn’t say which one because it was too bloody hot to pin it down… It’s nature. Nature’s busy.
I was in Sweden at the time, the last two weeks of getting the record together. And yeah, it was a drag. I felt completely helpless — in Sweden, you know, while your house is burning down. It’s really quite troubling.
Yeah, one would imagine. We don’t have to go further down this road…
It’s okay. I’m not traumatized by the event. I lost stuff, only. There were no lives lost. A lot of…stuff. And it started in the barn; nobody burned my house down. No one was angry with me. It’s just something that happens. There was nothing personal to attach to it. I’m sad I lost all my childhood photos. But I’m okay with memories. It’s another step in realizing that being really overly sentimental doesn’t serve you in any way.
I had a different perspective on the fire maybe than I would have at another time because it happened right as Puerto Rico was underwater and just after Houston was underwater, and just before all the fires in California. So many people lost so much more than I did.
I remember moving from California to the East Coast, packing all my stuff into a moving truck, and the truck driving off. I had a couple of suitcases, and a car to drive cross-country. And I felt this weird relief in imagining, if the truck went missing with my stuff, I’d be okay with that.
Stuff is just stuff; it’s lives that matter. You can know that logically, but then when it actually happens and you actually do feel that way, you’re relieved — because what if you weren’t okay with it and you were traumatized. It’s nice to know that you can feel something logically and it does translate, because it doesn’t always work out that way.
I imagine it’s empowering in a way.
Yeah, it is. Because you know, it really is just stuff. Sure. I like that couch, but there are other couches in the world and I will find one. The calves are okay. Jeff’s okay. The dogs are okay. The chickens are okay.
Nature and the animal world have always turned up in your work as themes, but they seem even more present on this record.
Kind of related to what we were just talking about, I had a different perspective on the fire maybe than I would have at another time because it happened right as Puerto Rico was underwater and just after Houston was underwater, and just before all the fires in California. So many people lost so much more than I did. I was just another person in that great sea of loss. I’m one of the lucky ones. It definitely was not lost on me that I really lost nothing in the end.
It’s been a very weird, hard couple of years. So talk to me about the process of writing for you. Do you sit down and write in a burst? Do you take notes while you’re on the road? How do words come to you?
In both of those ways. I mean sometimes I just have a line or two, and so I write it down, or maybe I’ll dream a line or a melody. I just try to write everything down that kind of pokes me. And then sometimes I sit down and work on stuff for awhile. I think I do most of my best thinking when I’m doing the dishes at home. My physical body is busy doing something it really knows how to do, and doesn’t need any thought to do it. So my creative mind is doing a little tap dance and daydreaming and looking out the window and thinking about things. It’s sort of like play time for your creative mind when you’re busy.
Do you then pull stuff together in the studio or do you come in with the words pretty much set?
A third [of the songs] will be pretty much done, and rehearsed on the road even. A third will be songs that are like half-to-three-quarters finished, and then the last third is pretty much written in the studio. I like not knowing what things are gonna turn out like. But having those few songs pretty much fully formed is like the skeleton of the whole thing — something reliable, so you feel free enough to let some things happen.
I read an interview you gave about being part of an event involving women producers.
The WOMANPRODUCER conference in 2016. It was the first summit of female producers in the history of the world. That’s insane that there had never been one, but also insanely lovely that Khaela Maricich and Melissa Dyne brought all these women together in Brooklyn on a shoestring budget. It was the highlight of my professional career, I would say.
Wow. What was the takeaway?
The takeaway is that you can re-learn very basic things you already know in a very heavy way. Like, representation matters — and to be the representation, while seeing the representation at the same time, was the most meta, incredible, moving, breaking-down-and-rebuilding experience that I can recall. I’m pretty shy with people I don’t really know, and I think I could say that for all the other women on the panel. You know, right when you first meet someone, there’s a kind of guarded politeness. Like, yeah, we’re very happy to meet each other and stoked to be there. But we all just exploded into conversation. We were starving for dialogue, starving. It was a magical time, a beautiful thing. And I sincerely believe people need to give Khaela and Melissa some serious grants to get it going all over and in various places with way more women. To be up there speaking about production technology, intuition, instinct and everything with these other people in front of a mixed group of human beings — men, women, people from all different backgrounds and age groups. It was a beautiful, beautiful thing.
It still seems that it’s something that needs modeling.
Women have been there at the dawn of every single technology as heavy hitters, developers, innovators, inventors, and content creators. We’ve been there the whole time. We need to push it. It’s good for everyone. And there are trans women, like Wendy Carlos. She innovated so much. My favorite digital technology is all her invention. I always bring it up. Everyone who asks “What’s your favorite digital reverb?” I’m like, “The Wendy Carlos reverb, of course!”
It’s so fun to talk about what you love. I’ve met some real jerks in the world of music, and a lot of women telling me they’re not really sure about how to ask about these things. And I’m like, “Look, all you gotta do is find the person who really loves what they do, because they won’t be able to help it. They’re gonna want to tell you about it. And if you meet people who don’t want to, like they’re hoarders of information, move on. Find someone who can’t wait to talk about the SSL console, or whatever it is you want to learn about, because that has no gender. There are men out there who cannot wait to talk to you about it.” And that’s how I learned. I had really amazing men who loved teaching, and could not keep their love of technology and music to themselves
And I’d venture to guess that, aside from being cool because they were quote unquote “allies,” they’re probably among the most talented folks because they’re not threatened by sharing their knowledge with someone else.
Absolutely. And you know, my dear friend and a recording mentor, Daryl Neudorf, he’s kind of the best. He’s my favorite feminist because I didn’t even know that what I was doing early on was producing. He turned to me one day and he goes, “You know you’re producing, right?” And I said, “No, I don’t.” It’s the greatest gift anyone has ever given me. And I’m so grateful for him every day. He truly is one of the greatest feminists I know.
You’ve been doing what you do for a minute and I would think that young artists coming up, women and men, might look to you as a role model. Do you have a take on young musicians getting involved in this crazy world of performing and making records?
I think right now it’s about the advancement of technology. As much as I am pissed at it, or people who run certain technologies who never consult musicians about what’s going to happen with their music, I think the gain for young people [is] to be able to make their own music, on their own, and they can do it at home in a place where they don’t have to be embarrassed or scared to venture into, so they can gain a confidence that maybe they wouldn’t have been able to gain before. Because it takes a lot of balls to just be like, “Okay, I want to come into your studio and record these songs, while rehearsing them in front of strangers.” You’ve got to be a different kind of person to be able to do that. I guess I was that kind of person. But I was a very aggressive, ravenous young person. My desire was very large. My desire and my will were both really large and, you know, rather feral. So it wasn’t easy for me by any stretch of the imagination, but I wasn’t not going to do it, either. Everyone’s different, and there are people who aren’t like that who deserve just as much a time to develop themselves as I had, or claimed, or took, or whatever you wanna call it. It’s nice to be able to give yourself the confidence that you need in your own time.
Extra-large desire is probably a good thing to have.
But then again, sometimes you don’t know you’re good at stuff until you try it and then, something that was kind of a little urge that was poking you, and you start playing music and it really starts fulfilling you. Maybe your life path swings that way, and you decide that you like to create things. I don’t know, it’s just — it’s really good to not ignore those paths. You don’t have to take them forever. It’s not dangerous to try something.
A lot of people would have had a four-track, in my day. But I didn’t have a four-track. I just went to band practice. I never enjoyed playing by myself. Otherwise, I might have done it that way. I got into music because I wanted to be in a band. I didn’t want to be a solo person; I didn’t want to play by myself.
You’ve made a name as a solo artist, and yet you’ve done it through a number of bands and alliances with musicians that have lasted over time. Are The New Pornographers still a thriving concern with Neko Case as a member?
I’m still in the band. I’m promoting my own record right now, so I’m not doing anything right now with them. They’re playing some festivals, and I don’t know if Carl’s writing right now. I know Dan also has his record out right now, so I don’t know what he’s up to at the moment. But I’ll see Carl in a week or two and see what’s going on. We’re always close, but when you go into promoting a record and the first parts of a tour, that’s kind of all there is. It’s really all-consuming.
And then you’ve got journalists and podcasters chasing you down, eating up your time.
No problem; I appreciate it.
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Will Hermes is a New York-based author and journalist. His work has been featured in Rolling Stone, the New York Times Magazine, and other publications, and he’s a frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered. He’s the author of Love Goes To Buildings On Fire: Five Years In New York That Changed Music Forever. He’s currently writing a biography of the musician and poet Lou Reed.
Editor: Sari Botton